Friday, October 30, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 5 - "Real Estate Agent"

          As I left the compad boutique, I realized I hadn't asked whether Tskksk knew the former owner of the abandoned pet store. No problem; the omission just gave me an excuse to call her. If she didn’t know, I might ask ‘Madame Iyallette’, the owner of the snack shop next door. If I guessed right, Iyallette was probably an elderly, patch-bald Hrotata female, stuck in the past by preference or by dementia.

          There were still neighborhood residences to canvas, although I didn’t hold out hope for new revelations there. I surveyed the connecting street once more to make sure I hadn’t missed anything important. The pavements themselves were scrubbed clean of any crime scene evidence, but I still needed to know why the victim, Vzktkk, had been walking in this area in the first place.

         It seemed unlikely he had come to shop. Aside from the closed pet importer, the compad store, and the snack shop, the only other commercial sites I could spot were an automated electrical recharge station for ground and air transports, a similarly unattended public comm booth, and another closed storefront with a For Sale sign half covering the name of a legal firm.

         It was possible Vzktkk had been walking to a destination outside of the immediate neighborhood. For example, I had passed two restaurants on my walk from the aircar station. It was possible that I’d have to widen my search range to make sense of Vzktkk’s route.

          In any case, if he was just randomly passing through, there was no specific reason he needed to pass through here. The shooter had known his or her quarry would be walking on this particular street. If Vzktkk habitually walked this route, the locals should at least recognize him. I suspected, instead, that he was coming or going from a specific address in this neighborhood.

          What was it about this spot? Was he lured here by an invitation? Was he somehow connected to the absent owner of the decaying pet store? Was he chasing someone who lured him to the target site or was he pursued and herded here?

          Lots of questions. Likely most of them were irrelevant. As I walked the street, I knocked on doors and pressed buzzers. Most of my attempts met with no response. I wasn’t surprised; the residents of this area were probably out working hard, tending the needs of Layafflr City. Good for them.

          I did rouse a few locals: dependents, the unemployed, elderly retired, a couple of sick homebodies and one Taratumm home on vacation. As I had suspected, they weren’t much help. Everyone had heard about the murder. Nobody actually witnessed it or knew the victim. Nobody had seen anyone suspicious or obviously armed in the area. I doubted any of them were hiding actual knowledge; for the most part, anything of value they might have seen was obscured by inattention, not complicity or cowardice. If you aren’t expecting trouble, you don’t spot its signs.

          My inquiries did turn up a few useful scraps. The pet store had been closed since anyone could remember, at least twenty years per the oldest continuous resident. That meant it hadn’t just closed up without cleaning out its ‘excess inventory’. Someone had moved back in and restocked, yet never re-opened the store itself. Like Tskksk, one other local recalled seeing the lights on inside the closed storefront, sometime in the last week. Someone had definitely been inside, using the building.

          One older female Vislin, a retiree named Ktvvsp, hinted at a possible reason for Vzktkk’s visit to this particular corner of Isstravil. She had heard rumors that one of the buildings – she pointed vaguely down the street – had a high tenant turnover rate. While it wasn’t advertised as a hotel or other temporary housing, no one seemed to live there very long. No one living there was well-known in the neighborhood, at least, and new faces almost always went to that door.

          Such a description brought several thoughts to my jaded mind. The more innocent were a private hostel or safehouse, which could be a legitimate but unadvertised business, a facility operated by constables (local or planetary) or even the Great Family government, or just a flophouse for shadier characters needing a safe and private hideout. Further down the morality scale, it could be a criminal meeting-house, a lair for conspiracy, a drug den, or an upscale brothel. Any of those would bring in various short-term visitors, while needing the obscure and respectable façade provided by this working-class neighborhood.

          And yes, all those suspicions might be wrong, too. The building might just be a terrible place to live, with tenants fleeing as fast as they could manage. At present, it was enough to tag the site as one of Vzktkk’s likely destinations.

          My lovely old busybody was also familiar with all of the neighborhood’s long-term residents. She vouched for Madame Iyallette’s spotless reputation and the ambitionless innocence of her employee, provided contact numbers for some of their fellow elders, and even seconded my opinion of technophile Tskksk’s attractive competence. Of equal interest, she confirmed that Tskksk was unattached, sad and surprising as that was.

          Even the most productive font of local information could add little more about the actual case. Ktvvsp had, in fact, been interviewed by the constables, who learned nothing from her. Like with Tskksk, the little more I had gleaned came from asking the questions the constables hadn’t known to ask.

          The interview with Ktvvsp took a full hour, including time to share a cup of broth and fresh marrow cakes. How can you refuse that? Pounding on doors in general burned up another two hours. Between that and my visits to the local shops, almost half the day was gone. The social snack had stretched me past lunchtime, but I was going to need a solid meal eventually.

          The advantage of waiting so long was that the workers were gradually starting to return home. I did my best to flag down whoever I could as the transports dropped off commuters. My efforts met with even less success than during my daytime rounds. A few individuals stopped to talk, but they added nothing to what I already knew. The rest either ignored me outright or pled an urgent need to get home. None struck me as hiding any dark secrets or repressed confessions; more likely their reluctance had something to do with the lingering traces of rkptk blood on my armor.

          At least I had something to work with now. I could research the owner of the pet store’s building, as well as the ownership of the mysterious transient house. Eventually, Tskksk would transfer her surveillance data to my account. Possibly, one of my follow-up calls would lay further eggs.

          I really wished I could cross-check these leads with the constabulary. In particular, they might have background on the transient house; if nothing else, I could rule it out faster if it was a known safehouse or private business. Theoretically, they would profit by the exchange, by gaining the unique knowledge I now held. It wasn’t their fault, precisely, that I couldn’t share what I knew or ask for their help. The law held no provisions to trade past sins against present virtues; my youthful transgressions couldn’t be overlooked if I brought them up to explain my interest in this case.

          If I were a better actor, I might play off my involvement as a random hire by the victim’s mate. I never met the lady before, honest, constable. The problem was, a good detective might pick up on our familiarity. An average detective would eventually notice the coincidental connections between me and Pkstzk. Even a mediocre detective couldn’t miss our association if explaining the murder required reference to pack Vzzrk.

          It would be easier to build up a cover story after I knew more about the crime itself, particularly after I learned what Pkstzk knew. If her first mate, my packmate Rsspkz, was involved, then I couldn’t be part of this case at all. One of the hazards of PI work is getting summoned to court as a witness. Sure, I’d love to have a half-dozen bailiffs and a judge present when the accused recognizes me! He surely won’t sink my entire future in retaliation for my testimony against him! I might not be helping my old pack mates, but I hadn’t struck against them, either. I could only assume that was part of the reason Rsspkz hadn’t named me as an accessory to his crimes. Funny that I benefited from his pack loyalty.

          I was really looking forward to this murder being a nice, boring, armed robbery gone bad. What I had learned so far reduced that possibility, but it was still possible that Vzktkk had been involved in some dirty business unrelated to my dirty business.

          Maybe Pkstzk could add the pieces I needed to make these scattered clues line up. We’d put the mystery together… together… shake our heads, laugh or cry as appropriate, and move on with our lives. Maybe together. I was way ahead of the case, as usual, meaning both the murder and the potential relationship. I supposed it was bad form to ask a widow about availability.

          It was too bad I couldn’t sort out that old crush before chasing a new one, but I meant to talk to Tskksk tonight or early tomorrow, before my meeting with Pkstzk. I wanted as much background info as possible before then.

          In the meantime, a wipedown was in order, followed by a meal at whatever budget I could bear.  After that, I’d be ready for some heavy comm time.

          I wrapped up my business in Isstravil and hiked back several blocks to the public transport stop.  Sharing the big box with only a couple of late-shift workers (or maybe returning, lower-class, daytime caregivers to the children of the middle-class), I was left alone with my thoughts during the ride.  The gore dotting my armor and rain slicker had dried.  It probably didn’t look or smell any worse than the leavings on a cook’s apron.   I didn’t look like any cook, but maybe they figured me for a slaughterhouse drudge.  I’d buy that.  I filed the idea away for future acting needs, next time I found myself with someone else's blood on my armor.

          The transport dumped me, once again, several blocks from my actual destination. Nobody got off with me.  It was too much to hope that I had a neighbor who worked anywhere near my current investigation site.  Some cycles, it was too much to hope that I had a neighbor who worked, anywhere.

          I’m kidding, of course. Layafflr allows only one cycle of public assistance before you get assigned ‘civic maintenance’ labor. Most sapients would rather apply for a job cleaning toilets than risk being sent to scrape dung off of the sonic emitters at the city border. Sometimes, the wildlife applies new dung while you’re scraping off the old stuff.

          I wasn’t necessarily that far from dung scraping, myself. I could walk to the city borders from my apartment, for one thing. I needed a paying job fairly soon, also. Too bad I was spending all my business hours on personal business.

          Right then, that personal business involved some personal grooming and dinner. I worked my way up to my apartment, shed my stained jacket and armor, and powdered and scraped my scales until I smelled only the scented dust. After I finished, I popped a frozen ‘meal’ into the oven and toweled off while it reheated.

          I almost mistook the ping of my compad for the ring of the oven timer. Once I figured it out, I checked my messages: the data from Tskksk had arrived. I hadn’t expected her to follow up so fast. Her speed probably had more to do with diligence – or boredom – rather than any attempt to impress me. I considered calling back right away, just in case she was interested in my good opinion. Shhhh, better to play it warm and wait. Even if she had found some free time, it was still within business hours. After closing, I’d have her full attention.

          I may have mentioned, previously, that I’m something of a deviant. No, not just about the pack loyalty issues. I’m also a pervert.

          Vislin, in contrast to our Hrotata cohorts, don’t differ much between genders, physically. We can tell the difference, but most other sapients can’t. We’re also not as frequently driven by sexual urges as mammalian sorts. When the time is right and the opportunity presents, we still have a strong reproductive drive, but you won’t see, for example, an advertisement with a scantily-clad Vislin female hinting that buying a product will improve your chances of mating with her. Mate-seeking is more about making a close association with someone, as a well-respected acquaintance or even friend, such that reproducing with you seems like a very good idea. That doesn’t rule out jealousy, but it’s less about fighting over an object of desire and more about competing for a valuable resource.

          By contrast, my perpetual notice of and desire for association with females – totally normal among Hrotata or, say, Humans – would be considered indecent among Vislin. I can generally keep my reactions under control, but sometimes I can’t help being distracted by an attractive female. Small as the differences might be, I can spot them, especially in those females where the distinctions are… pronounced.

          There are compensations for being so askew. I can understand the motivations of other sapients more easily where romantic behavior – and its dark reflections – is involved. I can even spot some underlying threads beneath the surface of Vislin behaviors, ones we don’t often admit to ourselves. Of less professional value, I just have more fun, especially when I can interact with said attractive females.

          Tskksk wasn’t my usual preference: a bit short, heavy in less ideal areas, eyes more wideset than I liked. She did have an adorably sharp click and a bright energy that I liked. Her enthusiasm was particularly admirable, given the setting of her shop and the difficulties such a business would encounter.

          She was a sharp contrast to Pkstzk, who was tall, muscular, and outwardly confident but privately needing constant reassurance of her value. She was… at least she used to be… fearless, wild, and unprincipled. My attraction to Pkstzk came partly from her looks and partly from my youthful self’s impression of her glamour. She was what the leader possessed and therefore desirable. Was it just my personal oddity that magnified that into attraction, or did I genuinely like her for herself?

          Thinking about Pkstzk reminded me that I had some work to do before our meeting. It was still a little early for business calls. While I bolted down my processed imitation flesh-and-offal dinner with one hand, I made some notes on my compad with the other.

          I sketched out the crime scene: the main path, the cross streets at either end, the buildings, and the purported death site. This exercise didn’t generate any new insights. I organized my list of names, contact numbers, addresses, and interview notes, and added a few more observations I hadn’t recorded at the time. Once that was done and my eating hand wiped off, I searched the network for more information.

          I found public listings for the snack shop (proprietor: Iyalette), the compad store (with links to a virtual storefront), and several apartment buildings nearby. The pet importer had no network presence, nor was its upstairs apartment visible: it had no current resident listed at its address, no sale or rental information, and no listing for an owner.  In fact, it was suspiciously invisible. Even taking into account the progress of technology in Layafflr City, along with the long vacancy of that business, it was still odd that the present owner had never tried to find a buyer or a tenant… or had kept such transactions completely private.  It gave the impression of deliberately avoiding the public record.

          Such dormancy should have raised alarms in conjunction with a murder investigation next door.  I was starting to wonder if the constable detective was just overworked, dangerously incompetent, or possibly being diverted from certain leads. It happened: the investigator ran with one explanation or one suspect and missed the opportunity to pick up key details. That kind of oversight is what creates cold cases.  Spotting such gaps could solve those cases later, depending on whether evidence is still available.

          Those oversights also keep P.I.s like myself employed, so I can’t complain if my official counterparts leave us a few crumbs.  I also can't criticize them for haste.  Hesitating on an investigation, not picking a direction and running it down, is sometimes just as much of a mistake. Give a suspect enough time and they’ll eliminate more and more evidence. 

          This store, though, it hadn’t been hiding its involvement very well.  I had spotted signs of recent occupancy, even from the street. Though those rktpk had been locked inside the store, they weren’t caged in the back. The inner door had been closed, but not tightly, so they should have been able to exit into the front room. After that, anyone looking through the door lintel window could have spotted them. Even before then, anyone listening closely should have heard them screeching in hunger.

          Something wasn’t adding up about that place, but I couldn’t decide which way it was skewed.  Frustrated, I switched tasks and tried to identify the ‘transient house’ my elderly informant had indicated.  Per the pointing of her crooked claw, the target was probably one of three buildings on the far side of the street, past the shops. One was listed as an apartment with units for rent, but I could rule that out with a little digging. Matching names to the addresses of each unit, I could identify real residents with tenures following a normal curve: a few of a year or less, one at twenty-two years, and the majority somewhere between five and ten years.

          The next property in line was also classified as residential, but not specifically as an apartment complex. Its owner was a private company managed between Herds Boprad and Rosht, respectable Taratumm families mostly involved in freighting, tourism, and other forms of transport. The building could be a private hotel for guests, I supposed, but the location wasn’t ideal for a guest house. More likely it was used as condominium housing for Herd members, friends, and business associates staying temporarily on ChtkKttp.

          Frost, if the second building was the source of that old Vislin’s concerns, then its connection to the murder victim was unclear at best. Unless he had business with the owners – and Pkstzk might or might not be able to answer that – then Vzktkk probably wasn’t going to their building. He might have a second-degree connection to one of the tenants there, but finding that link would take even deeper digging.

          The last of the three candidate buildings showed mixed uses.  The property was owned by a real estate firm, with sections leased out to various tenants.  The top floor was vacant, with the prior tenant given as an advertising agency.  The next floor down was rented as residence to a private individual named Kssptch.  The name's morphology was Vislin, but I couldn’t find a listing for any “Kssptch” to verify that against.  A very private individual, it seemed. Below that was a block of art studios, each either vacant or rented to a named artist or working group. I was intrigued to find a woodcrafter among them… I might be able to indulge my hobby if I had to stop by there in person. The lower two floors were also businesses: a law firm and a financial advisor.

          Strange that I hadn’t seen either business advertised at street level. Then again, some offices were unofficial rather than public storefronts. The owners might have reasons to keep their locations private, such as avoiding records theft or angry customers.

          So let’s see: Vzktkk could have been arranging his retirement, suing or being sued, learning pottery or painting, looking for an office for a new business, visiting somebody named Kssptch, or just saying hello to someone working on any of these floors. Maybe he had interests with Herds Boprad and Rosht next door or one of their guests. Or maybe he was visiting any of a hundred residents in a particular apartment building… or the ones all around nearby… or another on another block… or possibly, none of this was relevant.

          I was gathering a lot of data without context. I was filling time and fully aware of that fact. My research had killed a couple of hours, at least. It was almost time to start making calls.

          I decided to start with Madame Iyalette. Given that her employee was minding the shop, I probably wouldn’t be interrupting her there, though I might disrupt her dinner. I dialed the number the drowsy shop-minder had given me and waited through three signals before the line picked up.

          “Iyalette… who is this?” came a decidedly female voice, heavy, as if forced through a thick throat. Her production sounded wet, even for a Hrotata speaking in their own tongue, the default business language of Hrotata Prime and its colony worlds.

          “My name is Stchvk. I’m investigating a business in your neighborhood: the pet import/export shop. Did your employee… Hrussitl… mention me?"

          “No, I haven’t spoken with him today. I assume you questioned him at my store?” For a ponderously slow speaker, she was very direct, getting to business without any evidence of bluster or confusion.

          “Yes, Mistress,” I continued politely, “He couldn’t identify the owner of that property, but thought you might be able to recall more. It appears that the building has been continuously owned – and closed – for nearly two decades, yet I found evidence of more recent occupation. In fact, the last sale goes back far enough that there are no public records. It looks like your own business might have been a contemporary…” I let the thought hang, reluctant to say something further which might be taken as an insult, either to the elderly matron herself or to her aging shop.

          If she took offense, she did not bother to express any: “I do recall when it was last open. All sorts of animal noises… and smells. I met some of the employees, but I can’t recall but a couple of names anymore. I don’t think I met any owner, either of the business or of the building. Pardon, but may I ask you what is your interest?”

          I did my best to match her approach: “Originally, I was just checking out the property as part of a larger study of Isstravil. The building looked ideal for my employer’s needs. I discovered, though, that there were live animals inside… or had been. There was only one still surviving, a rktpk on the edge of starvation. It tried to eat me; I had to put it down.”

          I put an edge of disgust into my voice as I continued: “There had been more animals inside, but they were dead and eaten. I started asking around after that, trying to find out who was responsible for such abuse. When I file my report, I’ll want to refer the constabulary to the building owner, as well.”

          She remained quiet for a few moments after I finished, then responded with, “I see. Well, I share your interest in reporting such cruelty. I’m sorry I cannot help you more directly, but I will inquire amongst my former neighbors to see what they might recall. Let me give you those employees’ names, as well. They will have aged and moved on, of course, but they might remember something more.”

          “Yes, please, and thank you,” I agreed, “But are you certain you don’t know anything more about that building? Any signs indicating space available or whom to contact to rent? Any other tenants, perhaps in the apartment above?”

          “No… no, I’m sorry,” Iyallette replied after some thought, “I confess I didn’t pay it much attention, other than as a nuisance.  I own the provisions store, and once several others, but I stopped spending much time there myself once I transferred management duties to others.”

          Chchch, absentee owner. That might be the case with the pet store, too. I realized I was probably screeching at vanished prey, but I had to try one more question: “I see. One more thing: Are you familiar with the recent murder on your street? Have you been contacted by law enforcement investigating that crime?"

          Iyalette’s answer came more quickly this time: “I am, and I have, but that call went much like this one. I had little to add to their knowledge. I don’t see any connection between that event and your interests, Mister Stchvk.”

          “Nor do I, and there may be no connection, but I wanted to mention it nonetheless. Two cases of violent criminal activity in what appears to be, by my survey, a rather peaceful neighborhood? If coincidence, it suggests a general downturn in Isstravil’s quality of life. If not, then it might be a relief to trace both troubles back to a common source.”

          “Yes, I understand your point.” The hesitancy in her reply suggested declining patience. “I won’t take the time to regale you, but I’m sure you know that nowhere in this City is free of ‘violent criminal activity’. Isstravil is perhaps more peaceful than some districts, but hardly quiet. I wish you success on your investigation, but I can’t do your work to sort out what might be relevant from what is merely gossip. I suggest you sharpen your questions and direct them to more appropriate sources. Now, do you want those names?”

          She had made her point, and it was fair. She wasn’t going to share stories over broth and cakes; she was a busy woman, or at least a formerly busy woman trying to enjoy semi-retirement. I took down the employee names she could recall and thanked her for her time.

          I filed those drips of new information away and immediately went to call Tskksk. Her compad line went directly to voice recording. I thought I had waited long enough, but maybe she needed some time to finish closing.

          I wanted her direct guidance to sort through the data dump she had sent from her security program. Technically, I knew what I had: a raw recording of a wide swathe of the EM spectrum, sorted by frequency and intensity and somewhat localized as to direction of origin. A few translation programs had pre-sorted the signals into components, chunked by frequency range, duration, continuity, etc. However, you still needed to know what to look for in order to recognize what you were seeing. I couldn’t tell a laser blast from a solar flare, even with the guides.

          If I couldn’t reach Tskksk, I could download a few programs that would give me limited identification and potentially even label sections of the signal by likely source. Besides being less enjoyable, that route would cost me in time and credits, and would lack any personal perspective or insight. Tskksk struck me as someone who paid attention to the details – a trait I had to admire – and would be familiar with the general background noise of her neighborhood. Either way, she would be fastest to spot any relevant highlights.

          To keep myself busy while I waited to call again, I tried some of the contact numbers I’d collected throughout the day. These were mostly neighbors of the residents I had spoken with, offered in the hopes that someone else would know more than the provider did, themselves.

          Those hopes proved groundless. Of the numbers that picked up, most claimed ignorance due to absence, sleep, or just thick walls between themselves and the murder. A few didn’t want to talk, saying they’d already made a statement to the constables. One call was at least interesting, with the contact (a Taratumm male) trying to pump me for more information about the dead sapient, but having little to contribute in return. Nobody had been in the neighborhood long enough to know about the pet store or its owner. Nobody had seen anything else suspicious in the area. Nobody knew anyone to contact otherwise.

          After nine such fruitless calls, I tried Tskksk again. Still direct to recording. Nine decads, almost an hour after closing, and her personal line was still off? Was I being over-eager? Paranoid, maybe. She could just need time to unwind before dealing with ‘business’ again. Still, why shut off your notification entirely? I didn’t do that, often, and I frequently had callers to avoid.

          Still, I couldn’t wait until too late. She probably slept early, and the last thing I wanted was to irritate her by calling during rest hours. Speaking of which, I was feeling tired all of the sudden. All this research, all these conversations, all this theorizing felt like it was taking an abrupt collective toll. I mistyped a couple of characters in my notes and had to set the compad down.

          Maybe I could just take a short nap, an hour or so, then get up and try calling again? I staggered over to my nest, still undressed from bathing, and started to kneel down. Then I remembered that my meal container was still sitting on my desk. It wasn’t the first time I’d left trash lying around the place, but it bothered me that I had forgotten the mess so completely.

          For that matter, it bothered me that I had again become deeply fatigued with little warning. I struggled to snap back awake, wondering whether my reluctance to seek medical help was dangerous folly. How long would I sleep this time? The last time I had intended to ‘nap’, I lost the entire evening into the next morning. The sleep itself felt normal and I hadn’t felt sluggish when I woke, but falling asleep so deeply, without intention or drugs, was irregular for me. Usually it took me a few decads to get comfortable and slip under. Half the time, I’d wake up once or twice in the middle of the night, due to discomfort, lingering anxieties, or outright bad dreams.

          My efforts were rewarded by a few moments of clear thought. I got up and threw away my dinner leavings and locked my compad in a handmade cabinet, the closest thing I owned to security. I cleaned my teeth in the bathroom. During that process, I started to wonder how I had shifted so fully from drowsing to alertness. That control, in itself, was strange.

          As I considered the anomaly, my mind again began to wander. Apparently, the reprieve from fatigue was only temporary. I decided I’d give it one more night, but if I started to daze out tomorrow, I’d have to pay the deductible and see a doctor. 

          Tomorrow… I’d see Pkstzk. The thought sent me to bed with the hope of pleasant dreams.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 4 - "Neighborhood Watch"

          I left the pet store still fuming but lacking a target for my anger.  I wanted to start asking questions around the neighborhood, but my terrible mood might interfere with a friendly, casual approach.  My other problem was the lingering stench of rotting and burnt meat.  Nobody was going to welcome a furious, reeking Vislin into their home or business.

          Then again… they might want to answer his questions quickly and get him to leave faster.  I could work the outrage angle.  People tend to sympathize more with dead animals than they do with dead sapients.  I could work with what I had or else waste time cleaning up and calming down.

          I decided to start across the street with the two neighboring businesses.  They didn’t have an ideal view of the street where Vzktkk had been shot, but they might know a lot about the neighborhood.

           I was perversely hungry, even after dealing with the putrescent hell inside the pet store.  Old predatory instincts: I had killed, therefore it was time to eat.  That made the snack store a desirable first stop.  Besides, if I stank as badly as I suspected, a food shop would have extra incentive to get rid of me.

           A digital chime announced my entrance to the little store.  Like the pet store, the space was a throwback to early colonial times.  It had the same hard-wired register stand, for one thing.  It also had open shelves holding a variety of dry edible items, just aging away in the sun.  No coolers, no sealed bins, no hydrators, none of the amenities of a modern grocery or convenience store.  There was a refrigerator in the back, behind the counter, which was probably for any fresh foods.  There was also a compressed-gas pump for carbonated or nitrogenized beverages; a faded menu card above the dispenser offered various brews.  Everything was to-go, judging by the lack of tables or chairs in the room.  All the available space was taken up by displays.

           Most of the goods available were protein-based.  Dried insects would appeal to Hrotata clients, but there were plenty of Vislin who appreciated the texture.  Six kinds of jerked meat, plus processed cubes and sticks with a variety of spices, took up one entire wall.  Dried seaweed, fruits, and sugared grain squares were on the opposite side - segregated for the herbivores, I supposed – while dried nuts filled the middle of the space.  Candies, puffed grains, and roasted grubs, plus a few oddities I couldn’t identify, filled the odd spaces in-between.

           The proprietor was a middle-aged male Hrotata with dark fur just starting to lighten at the roots.  He popped up from behind the counter at the sound of my arrival.  He ran a sleeved paw across his eyes, giving away his drowsiness from sleep.  Quiet day in a quiet neighborhood.  I almost felt bad disturbing his peace.  I wondered if he had slept through my racket across the street; maybe he had slept through Vzktkk’s murder, too.

           “Good day!  How may I help you…” he began, on script, before his eyes informed his brain exactly who he was greeting.  I nodded, trying to at least look non-threatening.  My stained rain slicker and well-worn armor probably set me apart from his usual customers.  His nose caught up shortly afterward, informing him that I had been recently working with blood and burnt meat.  I wondered what conclusion he would reach after totaling up his senses.

           “I just came from across the street,” I started, conveying pure business with my words and expression.  “The pet trader?”

           The Hrotata looked puzzled for a moment.  I waited for him to work it out.

           “Um… the closed store?” he finally guessed.  “Are you renovating it?”

           I blinked and cocked my head.  “No, I was investigating it.  Did you know there were still live animals inside?”

           His eyes widened in alarm, finally sensing real trouble.  “No, no, of course not.  I didn’t know anyone was still using the place.  Were… were they all right?”  He knew better.  The question was pure formality.

           I answered with the derision he deserved.  “No, they were not all right.  Some starved to death.  The survivor was so hungry it attacked me.  That’s animal abuse, at the least.  You sure you didn’t know, didn’t hear anything?”

           He raised a paw, swearing on an imaginary holy book.  “No, I didn’t know.  I never heard, never saw… then again, I never paid it much attention.  I just work here, odd days.”

           “Not the owner?  You think she… or he… might know something?  Might have ignored some sign of trouble?”

           “I’m sure Mistress Iyallette would have reported any worrisome sounds or activity to the authorities, right away.”  His loyalty was touching, but unhelpful.

           “Could I get her contact number, please?  I’d like to follow up on this.  Actually, have you seen anyone else near that building recently, going in or coming out or just checking it out?”

           See, I had a plan.  It just takes time to get around to the point, sometimes.

           “No, not myself… there was that Vislin killed nearby, recently… do you think he might have been involved?  Maybe he saw something…”

           I did my best to seem surprised.  “Actually, I think I heard about that.  Hadn’t considered it.  Now that I know the state of that building, it might be relevant.  Thanks.  I don’t suppose you know anything else about that attack… or the victim?”

           “Not really.  I was working at the time, but I didn’t notice anything wrong until people started to gather outside.  They were looking at the body.”

           I fixed him with a skeptical stare, “You were here, but you didn’t hear anything when he got shot."

           “It was a laser,” he stressed, defensively.  “They don’t make much noise.”

           Well, he was half right.  The beam doesn’t make any noise, but your boiling, popping flesh does.  Your screams make a bit of noise, too, if the shot isn’t immediately fatal.  To be fair, the media reports indicated that Vzktkk had died quietly.  If he had been far enough away – like at the opposite end of the street – the clerk might not have heard much, even if he was awake at the time.

           I had to keep playing ignorant, though.  “I see.  Well, I’ll have to read up on that case, then, see where it leads me.  Tttt, mind telling me what time it happened?”

           “Uh, around nine and a half.  We close at ten on work days.  He might have been shot a decad before that.  Nobody I’ve talked to said they saw the actual attack.  Nobody’s been arrested yet, either.”

           I shook my head, conveying a general disappointment with the failings of law enforcement.  “Without a witness or a lead… well, I’ve got to report to the constables, myself.  Maybe if my mess is connected, it might help with their case.  Thanks for your help.  Ttttt, hey, if you or your Mistress…”

           “Iyallette,” he supplied brightly.

           “Right, Iyallette.  If either of you remembers or hears something, could you give me a call?  What they did to those animals…” I finished with a beak grind to give Hrotata atavistic shudders.

           He obliged with a wide-eyed flinch.  “Uh, okay.  What’s your contact?”

           I supplied him with my actual name and number, but a false cover story: I was working for an interested real estate buyer, appraising abandoned properties.  He didn’t ask about my non-traditional outfit.  Too bad, since I was all ready to regale him with stories about even worse cases where I had to pull out the biohazard suit.  Of course I’d be in my old working armor for protection and armed against squatters… even in a ‘nice neighborhood’ like this one.

           As I walked back outside, I reflected on just how nice the neighborhood really wasn’t.  There was a slow decay at work.  Property owners were still banking on historical charm to draw in middle-class residents, but the aging buildings hid a variety of flaws.  Besides rust and dry-rot, there were old attitudes and old habits lurking beneath the skin here, like those registers, for example.  Like abandoned properties hiding unknown cruelties.  Like an old-timey snack shop just waiting to be shut down for health violations.

           Hungry as I was, I wasn’t buying something there and risking mold poisoning.  It was probably safe, if they rotated stock regularly, but I didn’t have much faith in that Hrotata’s diligence.

           I realized I had never gotten his name.  I could find it later, I supposed, or contact his Mistress if I wanted to discuss anything officially.  That was the problem with playing out an act; I couldn’t be as thorough as I ought to be.  If I had started pushing like a homicide detective should, the clerk might have gotten nervous, suspicious and even forgetful.

           Frosted tradeoffs.  I’d have to play the same game next door, at the compad store.  I wondered if it would have the same aura of decline as the other businesses.

           It actually did not.  The façade was old-time, but once you got through the door, the interior was all modern.  Slick white plastic panels divided by silvery metal supports covered the walls, likely hiding the rougher brick beneath.  The floor was a spongy polymer you could probably stand on all day without fatigue.  Brushed steel tables held a variety of compads and accessories, all current to the present year, some even up to the best Collective standards.  Several models were capable of housing a Terran A.I., a feature they proudly advertised.

           I wondered if they saw enough clientele here from outside the Great Family to make that boast relevant, or if it was just a sales tactic.  Didn’t really matter, unless it was somehow relevant to my case.

           My entry hadn’t set off any alarms, at least none I could hear.  There was already a clerk at the ready, though, an attentive Vislin female who greeted me as I entered.  She waited for me to browse the wares before approaching.  She was cute, if not as sleek as I liked.  Big eyes, heavy tail.  Dressed in simple pale red polymer plates, pseudo-armor to keep up appearances but still look non-threatening.

           When I finally made eye contact again, she asked, “Is there anything I can help you find, sir?”

           I resisted my instinct to make an easy joke.  I really wanted to say: your nest.  Or: a job that pays enough to afford this tech.  Instead, I stuck with my pissed-off, beat-up investigator role.  Normally, it wasn’t a hard act to maintain, but I wasn’t quite as angry as I had been before.  At some point, I must have lost some of my rage. 

           “I’m actually not shopping.  Just wanted to get a better idea what’s here.  I was across the street earlier, at the pet store…” I let the statement hang, again letting her jump to whatever conclusion she preferred.

           There was no way she couldn’t see and smell the gore on me.  If the Hrotata had, a Vislin surely would.  She was more blithe than the furball had been, though.

           She answered, “The pet trader?  Long closed, I thought.”

           “It was, but not empty.  I was checking out the building.  Turns out someone left live animals inside.  Some of them hadn’t quite starved to death yet.”

           “Tttt, so that was the noise,” she replied, still intriguingly non-plussed.  “I thought I heard an energy discharge.  It’s a little different than the usual noise around here… I still thought I might be biased, though.  You know, after the shooting.”

           Was she baiting me?  I couldn’t resist.

           “Shooting?  Tttt, right, the guy who got burned a week ago.  I read about that.  Neighbor of yours?”  I could play it warm, too.

           “No, total stranger.  First murder we’ve had around here in years – since I moved into the neighborhood, anyway.  Did you just make it two?”

           Her eyes bounced around my body in a way I’d normally appreciate.  I realized that she was looking for my weapon.  Rtrtr, I meant.

           I clacked and rolled my eyes.  “Depends on how sensitive you are to animal rights.  It was self-defense, anyway.  There was one surviving rktpk, nearly dead of starvation.  I can’t blame it for going after me.  I’m a big chunk of meat.”

           Now she was the one to look unamused.  “Yeah, to a hungry rktpk, you probably look tasty.  Too bad you couldn’t catch it alive.  Sounds like a terrible shame.”

           I got serious, finally.  “It was.  It was tortured, that one and at least two others.  Who knows what other animals they had already eaten to survive.  That’s why I’m here.  I assume you didn’t have any knowledge about their presence?  Didn’t hear any other ‘noises’?”

           “Not like that,” she answered, somber as well.  “Nothing ‘animal’.  I saw lights in the building a couple times over the last cycle, so somebody was inside.  There could have been visitors during the day, too, but I didn’t see them actually enter or leave.  Sorry.”

           “In case it’s relevant… what times?  How recently?”  I produced my own compad to take notes.  The sight of the outdated model made her click, either from disgust or possibly pity.

           “Kkk… four nights back, last time?  I think.  I was shutting down.  I usually don’t stay open past dusk.  Then maybe a half-cycle earlier, before that.  Nothing the night of the shooting, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”

           “I had wondered if they might be connected.  Judging from the state of the store, I assume the constables hadn’t thought to ask about it?”

           She tilted her head to look me over again before answering.  “No, they didn’t.  Asked about the victim, about what I had seen and heard – nothing, by the way – about whether there had been any previous trouble in the area.  There hasn’t, not anything like that.  A murder or two, sure, but always indoors, between acquaintances.  Crimes of passion, you know?  Nothing random or for money.”

           “No robberies, stick-ups or break-ins?” I asked.

           “Well, shoplifting.  That’s just a fact of life in my business.  I usually recover the product, though.  A good compad can call for help if it’s used by an unauthorized user.”

           “But accessories don’t have that protection,” I prompted.

           “Exactly.”  She fixed me again with a full stare.  “You said you were checking out the closed building across the street.  Checking it out for who?”

           Tttttt, challenge time!  I had to decide: double down on the lie or see if I could get more out of telling the truth.  My interest in impressing a cute, well employed female had nothing to do with that choice.  Absolutely nothing at all.

           I can’t even fool myself.  I decided not to bother trying with her.

           “For the family of the deceased, actually.  I’m investigating the murder.  Sorry I didn’t say before… though you didn’t ask until now.”  Very warm, Stchvk.  Practically sunny.

           “Chchch.  I suppose you thought being clever would get more out of me than just flashing your badge and being officious?”

           She stopped and held an uncomfortable silence until I opened my beak to reply, then interrupted to answer herself: “You’re probably right.”

           As I laughed quietly in appreciation, she continued: “Not that I’m hiding anything, from the constables or from you.  I just don’t like being treated like a suspect right away.  Was the animal abuse thing for real?”

           “Absolutely true.  I’d offer to show you, but I suspect you don’t want a tour… or want to leave your store unattended.”

           “I’ll take your word for it.  It’s not exactly busy over here, but you never know, and you’re right about not needing to see it myself.  I can see enough on you.  Smell it, too, now that I know that stink isn’t just your natural scent.”

           “Thanks.  It wasn’t too long ago that the smell of a fresh kill was considered arousing, you know.”

           “Sorry, but whatever’s on you is a few days past fresh.  Plus, I think we used to prefer meat raw back then, not charred.”

           “Fair enough.  My odor aside, I’ve obviously found something the constables missed.  Any thoughts about a connection?  Anything you didn’t think of previously?”

           “No… sorry, no.  Unless the victim was a pet trader or an animal rights activist… seriously.  I’m sure you’ll spot any connections like that yourself.  I wasn’t around when he died.  Did you check next door?  I think Hrusslitl was working that night.”

           Well, there’s the name I was missing.  Hrusslitl the Hrotata.  Easy to remember.

           “I did.  He didn’t have much to add.  What’s your name, by the way?”

           “Tskksk.  You?”

           “Stchvk.  Investigator for hire.”

           “Shouldn’t that have a sound effect?  Or a few notes of theme music?”

           “I can’t afford it yet.  Maybe if I crack this case I can get a sharp twang or something.”

           “Good luck, then, Stchvk.  Want to leave your number?  You know, in case I remember anything later?”

           “You know, nobody ever does call, even when they do ‘remember something’.”  I wondered if I sounded witty or just whiny.
           "Well, I’ve got no excuse not to.”  Her gesture took in the ranks of compads mounted all over the store.  She stopped, looking thoughtful.  “Wait a second.  I may or may not be an idiot.”

           I realized she wasn’t talking about her obvious flirting.  She walked around the room, looking alternately at the compads and then out the front windows.  At a few of the front tables, she stopped and poked at the screen of the foremost compads.  I eventually realized what she was doing.

           “Were any of these on at the time?  Eight days ago, about nine and two decads?”  I asked.

           “Exactly what I’m checking… although having the exact time makes it easier.  Usually I put all the ‘pads on a shutdown mode except one, which runs the Kpst Six security system.  No reason not to use the stock I already have, rather than install a separate dedicated system.  Plus, I can rotate through systems, making it harder to find and hack.”

           I was just barely following her explanation.  It sounded reasonable, although the specific technology she was referencing was beyond my knowledge.

           She finally stopped at one station, scrolling through files on the compad.  “This was the host system that night.  Let’s see… I have internal and external cameras.  The video won’t show anything.  I already gave the security output to the constables and looked at it myself.  Both the shooter and the victim must have approached and left the street from the same end, up toward 26th.  Audio isn’t very helpful, either; just an ambiguous noise around the time you’ve already established.”

           Now, this kind of talk was my kind of flirting.  I was tempted to offer her a job, if she wasn’t already doing better in business than I was.  Maybe she would hire me?

           She continued: “But that’s just from the remotes, which are concerned with my security.  This particular compad was also recording on its own, everything its pickups could reach.  That includes microphone and camera, which are even more useless than the outside cameras… but it also gets wide-spectrum EM.  That’s mostly to monitor the network bands for intrusion, but I also get public comms, unsecured private calls, and with a little filtering, a magnetospheric traffic report.”

           My expression must have been transparently boggled, because she elaborated: “It picks up on electromagnetic noise.  It’s only illegal to decode private calls, but you can record whatever you want.  I collect everything just in case.  You never know who might discover a new way to hijack a compad or skim data.”

           “So… you’d pick up the laser firing?” I ventured.

           “Tttt, yes, now that I know what I’m looking for, it’s right there.  You’d never be able to do it near, say, a major power line, or isolate one shot from a firefight, but by itself in this dead zone, the discharge stands out.  Exact time, nine plus one-point-three decads, forty-nine hectads.”

           “Well, the precision is nice, but I’m not sure it gains me much…”

           She interrupted to scold me, “That’s not what’s interesting.  You just asked.  What else we have is comm activity around that time.  I’ve got one distinct signal, very close, at one decad before nine and then again immediately after the shooting.  If it’s the killer’s compad…”

           “Then it looks like calling in to report,” I finished for her.  “That’s a stretch, though.  I didn’t see anything so far to indicate that this was a contract killing.”

           “Okay, then maybe it was the victim’s system.  Maybe it’s unrelated, sure.  But the data is there.  If it’s matched up with a suspect’s compad, that’s evidence.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.”

           “I wouldn’t have thought of it at all,” I admitted, inadvertently flattering Tskksk.  Her head bobbed slightly before she stiffened again.  I continued, “The constable detective didn’t think of it either.  You should take some credit.”

           “I should call them,” she realized, bounding over to her work station to pick up her personal compad.

           “Yeah, do.  But could you make a copy of that data in case I come up with a lead?”

           She tilted her chin up in amusement.  “I’d do that anyway, but thanks for asking.  Despite your obvious professional rivalry, I’ve never had constables demand every copy of evidence."

           “You’ve also never dealt with a homicide investigation… though this victim seems like a pretty minor player.  Trust me, if he was anyone important, they might confiscate every computer in this store.”

           She took my warning as seriously as I had meant it.  “You’re right.  I’ve been lucky, only dealing with theft, and that indirectly.  This neighborhood is – was – pretty safe.  I imagine you’ve seen worse.”

           “Of course.  This is Layafflr City, after all.  And you’re right, this is one of the nicer areas.”  I didn’t add that it was sliding downhill, in my estimation.  No need to make the nice female unhappy about her home.  She was probably one of the pillars still holding up the community.

           “Well, I hope it turns out your case isn’t connected to anything local.  Even considering the pet store.”

           “I agree, although I’ve got to check out any possible links.  Thanks for your help.  Anything else I should know?”

           She looked up, her compad still in hand.  “No… nothing I can think of.  I’ll call if I think of something, of course.”

           Damn.  I had been hoping she’d say, I close up at nine.  But she hadn’t blown me off, either.

           “All right.  Have a good afternoon, Tskksk.  Hope your next visitor actually buys something.”

           “I hope they smell better, too.”

           Tttt, I was definitely calling her later, even if it wasn’t related to the case.  Especially if the meeting with Pkstzk went badly the next day.  I needed some new, better acquaintances.